[cars name="Mazda"] Ebrahimi is ruggedly handsome, unfailingly affable, remarkably generous, extraordinarily clever, and certifiably insane. A software engineer by trade, he’s also a mad scientist who’s crammed a honking Chevy LS1 V-8 that he picked up on eBay into a tiny, open-wheeled, kazoo-shaped kit car loosely based on the spindly Lotus Seven. That alone isn’t evidence of lunacy; in fact, it’s pretty much par for the course on a steamy July morning in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, where the owners of nearly sixty Lotus Sevens, Caterhams, and LSiSs – Lotus Seven-inspired sports cars – have congregated for today’s 7-7-7 celebration (July 7, 2007, get it?) of the fiftieth anniversary of Colin Chapman’s beloved “four-wheeled motorbike.” No, the proof that Ebrahimi ought to be institutionalized is his inexplicable willingness to let me drive his beast on the Tail of the Dragon, a notorious section of U.S. Highway 129 that probably features more picturesque twists – 318 in eleven miles – and vehicular mayhem than any other public road in the country.
My butt is wedged against the aluminum floorboard of his so-called Rotus because the cockpit is too cramped for me to manipulate the pedals with the seat installed. The engine bay and transmission tunnel are throwing off so much heat that I feel like a sausage cooking on a charcoal grill. As we lug along behind a pair of Harleys hogging the sun-dappled, tree-lined two-lane, I sneak a peek at the digital instrument panel – it looks like something out of Microsoft Flight Simulator – that Ebrahimi has fashioned out of a castoff police-issue touchscreen. My goal is to fill the bar graph that displays throttle position on a percentage basis, thereby sampling all of the modified motor’s 440 horses. With a good launch, Ebrahimi figures that the Rotus should roar from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
When we hit a rare straightaway, I punch the throttle and hurtle past the bikers. The rear suspension is buckboard-stiff, and the tail lurches violently as the colossal rear tires – 305/35YR-18s from an old Corvette Z06 – claw for traction. I grab third gear. The acceleration is almost disorienting. Am I in a street-legal road car or a rocket ship leaving the launchpad? Wind whips so fiercely through the bathtub-style cockpit that I can feel the skin of my neck flapping like the sail of a tacking sailboat. “You got full throttle that time,” Ebrahimi shouts. This, I suspect, is his polite way of alerting me that the next corner is signposted at 20 mph, and if I don’t clobber the brakes pretty soon, we’re going to end up in Tennessee. In lots of smoking, disconnected pieces.
Like Ebrahimi, I’ve caught a bad case of what another sufferer calls Sevenitis. It’s a rare disease, but it’s making the rounds here in North Carolina. The 7-7-7 confab at the Tail of the Dragon is the largest collection of Lotus Sevens and LSiSs ever amassed in this country. It’s also the motliest collection, with a mind-boggling array of factory-built and DIY chassis and engines ranging from an antique Datsun and obsolete, British-spec Fords to a Vauxhall race motor and blown Honda S2000 twin-cams making north of 300 hp. (In a car that weighs a tick more than 1300 pounds, this translates into a power-to-weight ratio that’s half again as good as a ‘s.)
As I watch the unfendered front tires of Ebrahimi’s Rotus rise and fall on the A-arms he designed after modeling them in a computer program he wrote himself, I find myself wondering whether Chapman is dancing a jig in sports car heaven or spinning in his grave faster than the 12,500-rpm redline of the Yamaha R1 motorcycle engine powering the Locost – and, yes, that’s a marque, not a typo – fashioned by Paul Brocious and his father, Terry, out of square tubing, the dregs of an ’87 Mercury Cougar, and seats from a Pontiac Montana.
Chapman was a freethinker whose iconoclastic genius underpinned watershed designs such as the Lotus 25 (the first monocoque Formula 1 car) and the Lotus 78 (which heralded the ground-effects age). But the Lotus Seven, the bare-bones production version of a kit car designed while he was working as a civil engineer, was the ultimate expression of his famous dictum: add lightness. Featuring an ingeniously triangulated tube frame, the Seven was essentially a road-going formula car with crude two-seat bodywork, which made it perfect for road racing and spirited motoring. The car debuted in September 1957, and in one form or another, it’s been in production ever since. “It’s the ultimate sports car,” says Scott Nettleship, who owns a 1970 Series IV finished in traditional Lotus livery, “and it’s utterly impractical for anything other than having fun.”
For Chapman, the Lotus Seven was just the beginning. As he raised his aspirations – to F1, to exotic cars, even to boats and airplanes – he lost interest in the homely, low-buck, no-tech Seven, which was, in many respects, the polar opposite of the glossy engineering sophistication that Lotus came to symbolize. After developing four iterations over sixteen years, he was ready to toss the car on the junk heap. And there it would have rusted were it not for Graham Nearn of Caterham Cars, the patron saint of the Seven. In 1973, Nearn bought the rights to the car, and while no components are carried over from the Lotus years, Caterham remains the “official” manufacturer of the Seven.
But the Seven is as much a concept as it is a car, and the template for a long-hood, short-deck roadster with cycle or clamshell fenders and exposed headlights has taken on a life of its own. Although Caterham zealously guards its intellectual property – it’s gone to court almost as often as Law & Order prosecutor Jack McCoy – dozens of small firms have sprung up to pursue their own vision of what’s sometimes referred to as the Se7en. LSiS manufacturers are all over the map in terms of geography and resources, and with production numbers ranging from a few dozen a year to one a century, design, engineering, and build quality vary widely.
If authentic Lotuses and Caterhams are at the top of the food chain, then the accurately named Locosts are at the bottom. Based on plans published by Ron Champion in his subversive classic, Build Your Own Sports Car for as Little as £250, Locosts tend to be shade-tree specials that reflect the talents, or lack thereof, of their builders. Mark Rivera and Jeff Underwood engineered their cars – fitted with a turbocharged Miata and a Yamaha R1 engine, respectively – primarily for autocross duty, and both of them go like stink. But Jon Winterhalter’s principal goal was building a car for less than $2000, and he and his son, Andrew, managed this unlikely feat by doing their own metalwork (hence the lumpy aluminum nose-cone) and cannibalizing as much as they could from a junkyard BMW 320i. “I call it redneck engineering,” Winterhalter declares in a parking lot filled with pristine Sevens, loudly wondering why anybody would spend ten, twenty, or even thirty times as much as he did.
Sponsored by the marque-inclusive USA7s Club and organized largely by the indefatigable Al Navarro, 7-7-7 has drawn numerous “mainstream” LSiS manufacturers to the Dragon, and Westfield, Birkin, Brunton (Stalker), World Class Motorsports (Ultralite), and Deman are represented with cars that feel rock-solid. I drive a lovely orange Westfield that evokes memories of my Spec Miata, but with half the mass. Meanwhile, a Deman powered by a turbo-charged SR20DET – the JDM fave of the drift crowd – and a Super Stalker motivated by a supercharged Pontiac V-6 are both wild enough to cause my head to slam off the race seat with every upshift.
Each manufacturer offers its own selling points. Generally speaking, Caterhams are the priciest models on the market. They’re beautifully finished, often trimmed in carbon fiber, with narrow lines and trim dimensions. The most common modern engine choice is the Ford Zetec, which makes anywhere from 150 to 230 hp. A hot-rodded Caterham will traverse an autocross track faster than anything short of a formula car packing JATO rockets. You want power oversteer? Tickle the throttle. Neck-stretching stopping power? Hammer the brakes. In switchback sections, the car changes directions quickly enough to make your eyeballs spin.
But you really don’t need much power to get your groove on in a Seven. Chapman’s original formula – minimizing weight and maximizing mechanical simplicity – adds up to a remarkably pure car that raises the prosaic act of driving to something approaching a religious experience. I take a spin in Tim White’s Birkin, which is fitted with a 1.5-liter Datsun four-banger with a pair of mesh-covered SUs peering out from the aluminum hood. It’s not stunningly quick, but all the inputs are so direct, and the bark of the exhaust sounds so good, that I don’t want to give it up after a run over the Dragon. “It is an absolute hoot to drive,” White confirms. “And you don’t have to be hauling ass to have fun.”
Other than having fun, there’s no sensible reason to own a Seven. And unlike a Ferrari or a Porsche, it doesn’t come with much cachet: Owning a Seven won’t impress your neighbors; it’ll just convince them that you’re weird. As with any cult, there’s a certain appeal to being part of a select group of cognoscenti. But as I chat with owners, I realize that Sevenitis isn’t a sickness. It’s a passion, not so much for the cars but for what the cars allow them to do, which is to drive con brio, whether it’s slicing through the esses at Road Atlanta or motoring briskly along the undulating roads crisscrossing the Carolina foothills.
“I drive it almost every day, unless there’s snow or ice on the road,” says electrical engineer Cherik Bulkes, who drove his 1999 Caterham – which has 68,000 miles – to the event from his home in Wisconsin. “My personal cutoff is 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Your question shouldn’t be, ‘Why did I drive my car here?’ It should be, ‘Why did the others trailer their cars?’ Why on earth would anybody miss an opportunity to drive such a wonderful car?”
On Saturday evening, the Se7ens gather for a group photo that’s both a postcard image of sports car nirvana and a documentary record of group psychosis. Afterward, the cars slowly peel off, carrying their owners to dinner or a last blast over the Dragon, until only one car is left. Fittingly, it’s the oldest participant at 7-7-7, a right-hand-drive 1958 Series I, chassis number 487 – the model run began with number 400 – built in the original Lotus works in Hornsey, England. The green paint is chipped, and the aluminum hood bears the patina of a half-century of energetic use. A tent and a sleeping bag are bungee-corded to the rear deck.
The owner, James Wilson, is a graphic artist with a white beard and genteel manners. Back in the day, he raced Austin-Healey Sprites, Formula Fords, and Sports 2000s. Now, he satisfies his jones with his largely unrestored Series I. “It embodies everything I fell in love with when I was a ten-year-old kid,” he recalls. “It’s friendly. It’s quick enough to be interesting. It’s timeless. It’s the quintessential sports car.”
At the moment, I’m driving a 2007 Lotus Elise, which is as close as you can come to a modern take on Wilson’s classic. The Elise is a wonderful machine – wicked fast, reasonably comfortable, a paragon of utility compared with the Seven. But I doubt it will be venerated, much less still in production, fifty years from now. And as I watch Wilson motor off, with the fading light glinting against the spokes of his wire wheels and the blatty exhaust of his low-revving four-pot Ford echoing among the hickory and magnolia trees, I realize that as long as people drive cars for pleasure, there will always be a place for Lotus Sevens and their derivatives. And come 7-7-2057, I wouldn’t be surprised if dozens of survivors reconvened at the Tail of the Dragon to mark the centennial of Chapman’s four-wheel motorbike.
FOUR ENGINES, ONE SEVEN
TWIN-CAM FORD 1600
The engine of many early hot-rodded Sevens, this classic street/race motor gives Viviani’s Caterham plenty of pop along with authentic period feel.
This turbocharged beast, commonly found in drift machines, puts out nearly 500 hp and reportedly propelled Bob Drye to 60 mph in 2.7 seconds.
Longtime Datsun junkie Tim White fitted his Birkin with a 1.5-liter engine out of a Datsun 210. Fuel delivery is controlled by a pair of SU carburetors.
The engine powering Chuck Spera’s Ultralite is normally found in a Honda S2000. Supercharged, in Kevin Boulton’s screamer, it makes 300 hp.
Miata + Kit = FM Westfield
Dropping a Japanese four-banger into a Lotus Seven – style chassis is hardly a new concept, but using the steering gear, suspension, brakes, final drive, and even the instrument cluster from a first- or second-generation to get the vintage Lotus experience is. The gang at Flyin’ Miata in Grand Junction, Colorado, sells a kit – sourced from Westfield in England – for about $17,000 that allows you to build a Lotus Seve – inspired sports car using cannibalized Miata bits. And even if you don’t own a clapped-out Miata that you want to use as the sacrificial lamb, you can buy all the Mazda parts you need to complete the Westfield kit for as little as $2800. Flyin’ Miata will assemble the kit for about $5000, or you can do it yourself.
The result is a car that causes grown men and women to giggle like school children. At 1310 pounds, the FM (Flyin’ Miata) Westfield weighs an impressive 1000 pounds less than a Miata, so, even when fitted with a stock 130-hp Mazda engine, the FM boogies to 60 mph in less than six seconds. As for top speed? We only saw about 100 mph because, at that rate, it felt as if the turbulence was pulling our brains out through our ears.
Clearly, the FM is not a car for the casual enthusiast. A Lotus Elise is about thirty times more refined (and about thirty times quieter). That said, the Westfield’s simple, lightweight design helps give it a decent ride despite its modest structural rigidity and dampers that aren’t tuned for choppy road surfaces. Naturally, it’s on a racetrack where the Westfield really shines. Push through the initial understeer, and this featherweight assumes a perfect, slightly tail-happy cornering attitude that is easily adjustable with a wiggle of your big toe or a flick of your wrists. After driving the FM for a few laps around Waterford Hills Raceway near Detroit, it seemed like every other car we flung around the track was as overweight and sluggish as a fat man ambling up for his fourth helping at Old Country Buffet.